One of the best things about living in the mountains is that you don’t have to go very far to get a different climate, which is perhaps why most people in Colombia live in the mountains though most of the country is actually flat. An hour west from Bogota and at half the altitude is La Vega, a small town that has become a resort since the climate allows outdoor swimming pools.
People go to La Vega from Bogota because they want a change of climate: and I think what they do in La Vega is swim, eat and wear less clothes than they would in Bogota. And if you like to be in hot weather, to swim and to wear less clothing generally because clothing somehow bothers you (I really like wearing clothes, but perhaps that is eccentric), only one hour from the bustling capital you can slow down, take off many articles of clothing, swim, and find plenty of places to eat. Along the roads you can get roasted meat—and a whole meal corresponding—oranges and bananas (there are at least ten stands all in a row selling oranges and bananas and some of them sell a few exotic flowers for variety), and if you are like the locals and have an insatiable desire to consume baked goods, you can find plenty of little bakeries or a great, ample and busy bakery on the main plaza.
There is perhaps one other reason to go to La Vega, maybe two. If you are bothered by the 8,000 ft. altitude of Bogota and need some kind of relief you can get away to a hotel in La Vega and recover in the tropics. One of the chaps in our class is having a terrible time with the altitude and he escapes to La Vega just to feel better. (On the other hand we have a chap in class who is from sea-level Cartagena who says he’s always dragging when he’s back home but feels full of energy in Bogota. I am of his kidney.) The other reason is that there are quite a few plant nurseries, and if you want to buy one of the many interesting plants that are available and thrive in Colombia, you could go there—though as a general recommendation from one who is ignorant, try to buy your plants at the same altitude at which you plan to keep them.
La Vega is situated near a lagoon which it is possible for people to go and see. The locals allege that mini-vans will take a person out there for 2000 pesos, but I was not able to get information sufficiently free of ambiguities and contradictions to be useful (this is probably not because such a place and such transportation is unavailable, but because the thing is the sort of thing only the few locals who use it know about with useful accuracy). I was told about the lagoon by a friend in Bogota, the name was on the lips of most people in La Vega I asked, and indeed I might have gone if I had agreed to let the hotel call a taxi for me (good luck finding a taxi in service in the streets of La Vega), but the protestations about the reality of the location and availability of the mini-vans convinced me, and finding myself duped and with the day waxing warm, I decided I’d take more obvious transportation on to Villeta.
I’m told they have a hippie eco-village out by La Vega called Happy Village. I, el Cranko, certainly did not go there or inquire after its whereabouts. I’m pretty sure that by the time they manage to get anything ecological going on a large scale in Colombia, the green-fad will have passed and the great thing will be to dive into great vats of crude petroleum or to smoke cigarettes again.
The Journey to La Vega
If you want to go to La Vega you can get a bus from the great bus terminal, which I recommend seeing just because such a big place dedicated to bus transportation is impressive. A slightly bigger place is the mall at the Portal 80 stop of the Transmilenio, and if you want to go to La Vega and do not want to mess around in the bus terminal, you can go to the Portal 80 and find the minibuses that go to La Vega, Villeta and other places waiting for you outside of the Transmilenio (you must exit, neither the world nor the desired buses are within like some of the municipal buses are).
The mall is a three story affair with an open air part and the usual stores—the curious thing is that we don’t have department stores in any of the malls other than department stores like Wal-Mart, but we do have grocery stores in all of them. On the third story of the mall at Portal 80 there is some acreage dedicated to the food court. You have several options on most kinds of food and you can get Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Parrilla food*, Roast Chicken—such as Kokoriko and Cali Vea—pizza, hamburgers, and so on. You can get a hearty lunch for between 10,000 and 20,000 pesos, and the nice thing about a food court is that you end up with a large menu to chose from if you tour all the stalls. Most restaurants here open around 12 PM and a few are open and eager as early as 11:30 AM. But if you are bound and determined to eat in that mall and still get an early start, you can find the usual coffee places, Dunkin’ Donuts, and even McDonald’s for something before 11:30 AM.
The ride out to La Vega is 9000 pesos and most of it on a toll road. The road winds because you’re going down the mountains, and if it is a clear day, he way is full of wondrous and distant views. We happened to have a day full of clouds and fog—the mountains are mysterious under the fog, and the tall eucalyptus and pines rise ghostly. We got a ride in the front of the mini-bus right beside the driver and, unfortunately, right under one of the speakers. But we got a good view of the fog, and of some of the vistas when the fog cleared, and plenty of fresh mountain air—than which there is nothing more wholesome.
The buses will actually stop in La Vega itself, but I asked the driver to let me off at a hotel and he let us off a little way from the main part of La Vega at a place called Hotel Don Juan de la Vega. He looked at me with great sincerity—the driver now—and told me it was an excellent hotel. (This is something Colombians do a lot. Word-of-mouth is everything here. In business you need to know somebody, in politics you need to know somebody, in order to avoid the wrong place you need to know somebody, you can’t really use most of the public transportation in the city itself [intra-city = hard, not obvious; inter-city = easy, mostly obvious] unless you know somebody who can explain which bus you need to take, and so Colombians love nothing so much as being asked how something is done, or where the best this or that is; and if they don’t have any idea, they’ll make something plausible up—like the bus driver did with that hotel.)
It turned out to be probably the most expensive hotel in town. It has its own restaurant and is very nicely maintained: it is an excellent hot-climate hotel. The only drawback is that it is a bit of a walk to La Vega; the upside is that you don’t need to go to the town of La Vega all that much to get take it all in. The pleasures of hot climates are dim, cool interiors, the leisure life, the service, the pools, and for some people the fact that they don’t have to wear as many clothes as they might otherwise. All of these the Hotel Don Juan de la Vega furnishes or allows.
One thing you ought to know about if you ever decide to put down sixty bucks for the cheapest rooms in that hotel (you can get accommodations in La Vega for fifteen, I understand). Experience—I like to go on solid experience rather than speculation in these matters—has taught me that you will want to avoid the rooms at the front of this fine establishment. The reason is that the Bogota-Medellin highway runs not three meters from the windows of these rooms and the traffic, when it is not regular, is not altogether inaudible. I slept fine, but I was the only guest in the hotel that night who did (my wife and I being the only guests, and our room perhaps being the only clean one at the awkward hour of our arrival the end of a busy holiday weekend).
At the bottom of the valley through which the long and mighty Magdalena runs toward the sea lies the torrid town of Honda. The road from Bogota to Honda runs through La Vega and Villeta. As you wind out of the eastern ridge of the Andes you descend to the utter tropics where one can imagine that brown and sleepy Magdalena river being the fastest moving object. That region exerts a fascination for me not entirely unlike the arctic, just because in such places it is as if the Idea of Arctic, the Idea of Tropics has clean broken through into this lesser realm. I want to go and move slowly through the heat of Honda; I want to go to the departments or intendencias or comisarias, or whatever they call those great divisions of this broad land that lie flat on the surface of the earth at the equator, covered in jungle and insects and everlasting humidity. I want to go to Leticia on the southern tip of Colombia and look at the winding Amazonas.
But not yet. Enough for me to have been on the road to Honda and to have reached the regions of Villeta. Villeta has fine hot weather plaza in the center of town. In Tunja, in Sogamoso, in Bogota, and in other chilly places that I know of, the main plaza is mostly bare, devoid of shade. In Villeta great andean oaks, tall palms and other trees covered in a bewildering variety of parasitic growth brood over the benches, tables, vendors and idlers below. It is a world of shade and pigeons, and welcome relief from the sun.
We walked in the sun of Villeta; we watched the buzzards catching updrafts and spiraling into the leisure of the heavens; and we sought the shade. We wandered into the market on an off day and decided to ask for the local hot peppers known as aji. When you ask for aji most people think of the hot sauce; we said no, we wanted the actual chaps. En pepito? Yes, aji en pepito. We narrowly avoided a giant cockroach and found another chap who had aji, but it was all dried out and ground. But ask the lady over there, he told us, perhaps she has some. On through the dim marketplace to where it turned out the closest we were going to get to fresh aji en pepito was. She had taken the fresh stuff home because it didn’t last in the heat, she told us, but had some of them preserved in salt in a jar. Apparently it can get scarce because the birds like to eat it. I imagined the buzzards pecking at the little peppers and then charged with that heat rising slowly but relentlessly upward.
There is an old inn on the corner of the plaza of Villeta. In hot weather there are no buildings like the old colonial buildings into which one can flee from the sunshine. They have thick walls, they have long windows on at least two sides, they have central courtyards in which fountains murmur and where trees cast green shade, and just to cross the threshold is relief, to go further is cool delight and long, abundant meals, long, lazy afternoons and long, warm nights full of ticking insects. Time seems to stretch when one is in the tropics, the people seem lazy and are laid back, and the day goes by like a the unending, patient brown river.
We had some ice cream in the plaza and departed, not having plans to stay, no cool hotel in which to seek refuge, relatively heavy bags for carrying around all the time, and with a sufficient dose of the tropical weather to last us a little while. It had been pleasant in the cooling of the previous evening to eat Ajiaco (a thick potato soup with chicken, peas, corn and capers—into which they fail to introduce cilantro and I’m not sure why), avocado, and especially the exalted new delight of a grilled platano—as good for you as fresh mountain air. By then it was welcome to wind through the fog up the mountains back to chilly Bogota, where the people are pale, more bundled, and move with the hurry of the teeming city.